The changing face of applied ecology


R. Freckleton, Tel. + 44 (0) 1865 271274. Fax: + 44 (0) 1865 271249. E-mail:


Recently there have been a number of high-profile issues in applied ecology. These include predictions of massive impacts of climate change on global rates of extinction (Thomas et al. 2004), farm-scale evaluations of GM crops in the UK (Firbank et al. 2003; Perry et al. 2003), the catastrophic effects of diclofenac on Indian vulture populations (Green et al. 2004), the effects of hunting on fox populations and the implications of this for the hunting debate in the UK (Webbon, Baker & Harris 2004), as well as declines in seabird populations and the reasons for this (Frederiksen et al. 2004). In tackling such issues there is a dual challenge for ecologists as a community. First, ecologists have to find ways to address these problems. Secondly, the community of ecologists is responsible for publishing and publicising such work via societies such as the British Ecological Society and journals such as this one. The two challenges are equally important – the solutions that ecologists find will not be implemented unless they reach a well-targeted audience.

The Journal of Applied Ecology is evolving to provide an effective and rapid vehicle for communicating applied ecological research. In the past 5 years the Journal of Applied Ecology has undergone a period of sustained growth. The ISI© impact factor of the Journal has increased to 3·205 and it is ranked 13th out of 105 ecology journals, reflecting a greater uptake of work published in this Journal by the scientific community. Over the same period submissions have doubled, resulting from an increase in the number of high quality applied ecological papers.

What is applied ecology?

The Journal of Applied Ecology publishes high-quality ecological research that informs management practice. This encompasses an extremely wide range of topics and approaches. For the benefit of potential authors our aim here is to outline more fully what we look for in published papers.

Application of ecological principles.  The Journal of Applied Ecology publishes papers that deal with management from an explicitly ecological perspective. Published papers address problems by manipulating or exploiting the underlying ecological structure of systems. This is what that sets applied ecology apart from management studies. For example, an experiment may consider the effects of a range of management practices on a target species. In an applied ecological study the treatments would have been chosen on the basis of an understanding of the ecology of the species in question, and the results would permit an understanding of how to manage the species by manipulating its ecology. On the other hand, if the treatments were different management practices chosen without reference to ecological principles (e.g. different types of herbicide used to control a weed in an agronomic trial), then such a study would fall outside the remit of this Journal.

Management relevance.   Applying ecological research to real-world problems ultimately requires that we predict future management practice. There are varying degrees to which published papers do this, with some papers producing very specific recommendations, whereas others may be rather more general in their predictions. We believe that applied problems should be at the forefront of the objectives of applied ecological research. For example, papers that essentially describe the ecology of a system that is of applied concern (such as a threatened species or an agricultural pest) without direct reference to management are generally declined for publication.

General significance.   The generic and international value of published papers is an important consideration, albeit one that is difficult to address. It is the nature of the kind of work we publish that detailed conclusions are frequently specific to the particular system being studied. For example, a study might suggest how the numbers of a particular species may be affected by several management options and in all likelihood these will be specific to the system in question. However, the general lessons learnt may be important and the wider context should be made explicit. To aid this, papers published in the Journal of Applied Ecology have a final summary point titled ‘Synthesis and applications’, which aims to summarize the specific conclusions and generic messages from each paper.

Communicating applied ecology

There is a pressing need for ecologists to communicate their work rapidly to as wide an audience as possible. The move to electronic handling of manuscripts in the past 2 years has greatly shortened the publication times of manuscripts. Our average, time from submission to publication is now 10 months. In some cases handling times are as short as 5 months (Green et al. 2004), with papers frequently being published in less than 7 months (e.g. Gascoigne & Lipcius 2004; Hodgson & Townley 2004; Taylor & Hastings 2004).

An important innovation starting this year is the online publication of manuscripts prior to publication on paper. This system (administered by Blackwells and termed ‘Online Early’) has clear advantages in that it allows work to be made available as soon as the final proofs of a paper have been approved. Ordinarily there is a delay between the return of corrected proofs and publication of that paper in an issue of a journal. By removing this delay we are ensuring that our authors’ work will reach its intended audience in the shortest time possible.

The audience for applied ecology is not only the scientific community, but also includes managers, policy makers and the general public. For this reason, we have initiated a policy of promoting work published in the Journal to as wide an audience as possible. In recent months, key papers have received publicity in a variety of newspaper and other media. This media profile is important as it promotes ecological research to an audience far beyond the ecological community. To facilitate this process we ask two things of authors. First, we ask authors to flag potentially significant and high-profile aspects of their work at the submission stage. Secondly, on acceptance, we request from authors a short lay-summary that can be used as the basis for further promotion of their work.

The number of papers published per annum across all ecological journals rises year on year. This means that the average reader necessarily can read only a decreasing proportion of potentially relevant material. For this reason we place great emphasis on article length, and from the start of this year we are imposing a limit of 8000 words per paper, corresponding to c. 11 printed pages. We should point out that currently many manuscripts we accept undergo significant reduction, and potential authors should note the following points:

  • • Online supplementary information is used increasingly as a means to publish material not relevant to the main message of a paper, but that may be of interest to specialists. We encourage authors to use online supplements wherever possible.
  • • Large supporting elements should be avoided wherever possible. For instance, maps of study areas occupy a great deal of space and are uninformative for the majority of readers, as are tables that present large amounts of primary data or information that is not key to the main message of a paper. These could be presented in an online supplement.

The editorial team

The past 12 months has seen a turnover of the editorial team concurrent with a dramatic rise in the number of submissions. An important change in the way we handle manuscripts is currently in progress to ensure efficient manuscript processing in the face of an increasing workload. In order to provide a faster turnaround of papers we are appointing a number of associate editors to assist with the handling of manuscripts. This innovation will be important in augmenting the expertise of the editorial team.

Journal developments

The last year saw the publication of two special features, one on the use of fire as a management tool (Freckleton 2004; Fuhlendorf & Engle 2004; Gillespie & Allen 2004; Parr et al. 2004; Paynter & Flanagan 2004) and the other on habitat distribution modelling (Cabeza et al. 2004; Engler et al. 2004; Gibson et al. 2004; Frair et al. 2004; Jeganathan et al. 2004; Johnson et al. 2004; Rushton et al. 2004). These have attracted a great deal of attention and positive feedback. A special feature will be published in the second issue of this year highlighting research in aquatic ecology. A forthcoming essay review will look at the role of questionnaires as a tool in ecological research.

In the past 12 months there has been enormous interest in the effects of climate change on ecosystems, and we are particularly keen to encourage submissions in this area. Similarly, changes to agricultural funding through the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe are likely to impact profoundly on arable ecosystems and, again, this is an area in which we would like to encourage more submissions.

We are keen to try to identify priority areas for research and key problems for researchers. A paper by William Sutherland et al. scheduled for publication at the end of the year will ask ‘what are the 100 most important questions in applied ecology?’ This will be an extremely important and influential summary of the state of applied ecology.

Essay reviews represent an important synthesis of current work. Recent reviews have looked at the efficacy of agri-environment schemes (Kleijn & Sutherland 2003) and the application of ecological theory to management (Norris 2004). We are delighted to publish top quality reviews, and welcome enquiries from prospective authors.

In the coming year the Journal aims to consolidate its position as a leader in the field of applied ecology. We hope that the combination of high impact, fast publication and wide profile will appeal to readers and authors alike.